Heather Zadra

Heather Zadra: On "Travels in North America"

Jeff Sychterz has succinctly described Kees’ “Travels in North America” in its relationship to the American Dream, aligning the speaker’s journey with westward expansion and the migration of Dust Bowl refugees; he then links these movements to the politics of economics and cultural erasure. Another lens through which we can approach the poem lies in Kees’ tension with a more “self” oriented concept of the journey, one connected in American culture by the individual’s freedom of escape and the gathering of lived experience. The expected progress of such a journey constitutes a shift from confusion or ignorance to some form of enlightenment, but Kees consistently reframes the implications of the trip, casting an eye of disillusionment on a failed land of opportunity. Despite brief glimpses of beauty, the poem ultimately reveals a cluttered but homogeneous landscape, one whose bleak sameness becomes a reason for searching for “some new enclosure” that, finally, may only be discovered through language. The speaker’s marginality as observer offers, rather than a romanticized vision of freedom from responsibility, the images that point to a post-World War II America sliding or melting into the indistinguishable lines, colors, and dots of a map.

Appropriately, the way in which the speaker actually remembers his trip is through identifying locations on “A ragged map, imperfectly enclosed by seaworn oilskin”—much as the speaker himself is “imperfectly enclosed” in the space of America. The blurred map is a visual reminder of the blending into uniformity that travelling through the United States imprints on the speaker’s mind: “And sometimes, shivering in St. Paul or baking in Atlanta, / The sudden sense that you have seen it all before: . . . / You have forgotten singularities.” Significantly, however, the speaker hones in on events that seem memorable for their specificity and that retain some beauty in their very descriptiveness:

 

brown walls hung

With congo masks and Mirós, rain

against a skylight, and the screaming girl

Who threw a cocktail shaker at a man in tweeds

Who quoted passages from Marlowe and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.

 

The act of naming the very moments he claims to have forgotten performs a political purpose, however filled with potential these images might appear to be. Against these and the rest of the poem’s “singularities,” Kees juxtaposes the inescapable existence of the atomic bomb, which could render all journeys meaningless in an instant:

 

The land is terraced near Los Alamos: scrub cedars,

Piñon pines and ruined pueblos, where a line

Of tall young men in uniform keep watch upon

The University of California's atom bomb.

The sky is soiled and charitable

Behind barbed wire and the peaks of mountains--

Sangre de Christo, Blood of Christ, this "fitting portent

For the Capital of the Atomic Age."

We meant to stop, but one can only see so much. A mist

Came over us outside Tryuonyi caves, and a shattered cliff.

 

The anxiety behind these words cancels out all potential for beauty in the otherwise natural setting; and the bomb, like the mist that covers the travelers, overshadows all specific details that come before or after these lines. Hence, though the speaker continues to articulate moments that could be read as negative or simply ambivalent, he “forgets” or subordinates them in the context of an America that, above all, could destroy its enemies (or itself) in a moment. The journey has, to some degree, ended before it has really begun; the following lines act merely as addendums that represent lesser degrees of human error.

No time-based indicators suggesting change interrupt the flow of memory, and the speaker fails to move, throughout the course of the journey, from disillusionment to edification. The continual focus of the poem, despite the multitude of places and markers, is on the impossibility of America eliciting any real sense of calm self-discovery or revelation. The details described at each location produce not a consoling sense of familiarity, but rather a sense of disorientation, as the speaker realizes his inability to ground himself in any distinguishing place:

 

And here, now textured like a blotter, like the going years

And difficult to see, is where you are, and where I am,

And where the oceans cover us.

 

In building up to these final lines, the poem moves through a series of landscapes whose brief moments of beauty are overshadowed by the speaker’s associations with them: “Driving west / One Sunday in a smoky dawn, burnt orange along the landscape’s rim, / The radio gave forth five solid and remembered hours / Of gospel singers and New Orleans jazz, / With terse, well-phrased commercials for a funeral home.” Even the potentially pleasurable remembrance of watching a hazy sunrise while listening to gospel music ends with a journey towards death, an ironic detail in this context—for even that journey has a definable end, which is more certain than the travels the speaker describes. A marked moment of uncertainty blurs these juxtapositions of negative and positive, beautiful and tainted, as the mind begins to lose focus and remains suspended in limbo:

 

[You] have forgotten why you left or why you came to where you are,

Or by what road and passages,

Or what it was, if anything, that you were hoping for.

 

Around the same time that Norman Rockwell was painting an idyllic America in scenes like "The Prom Dress," "The Soda Fountain," and "The Marriage License," Kees refuses to situate his verbal images in any such comforting familiarity. Rather, the familiarity he endorses effects a sort of mental paralysis, the result of viewing widespread contamination that overwhelms potentially redeeming qualities of the landscape. In place of the latter, we are given the reality of nuclear warfare, the cluttering of landscape with industrial markers and refuse—“rubber plant[s]” and “brownish film”—and the waste of America’s throwaways on the incoming tide. The notion that individuals still seek personal revelation in the midst of such debris becomes, in effect, absurd; though the speaker, like most travelers, reminisces about his “sightseeing” across America, his sight sees much more than the stereotypically romanticized journeyer. For the most part, he perceives a depersonalized void of "formica and television aerials / And rows of cars that look a little more like fish each year," images that render illusions of charming, idyllic scenes of America ridiculous. Instead, the vision is one of waste, of a civilization’s slow self-destruction represented in barren and broken things.

Indeed, it is better not to have seen some places—"Wetumka, Oklahoma; Kipling, Michigan; / Glenrock, Wyoming; and Chehalis, Washington / Are momentarily the shifting centers of a dream"—for then one can still imagine the possibility of their being untarnished, untainted with everything that has come before. Though the speaker’s reveries about the possibilities for each place allow him a brief reprieve from the depressing realities surrounding him, he cannot finally escape “that smell of rubber smoldering,” the grim reality of most towns he encounters. And even the most peripheral information renders the unseen towns somewhat sad in their implied likeness with the others:

 

Dalton, Georgia, “Center of a thriving bedspread industry, where rainbow lines

Of counterpanes may be observed along the highway. Here

The man whose Home, Sweet Home is known to all,

The champion of the Cherokee, John Howard Payne, was tried.”

 

To forget, perhaps, would be the greatest blessing of all, and to some extent, the speaker has forgotten specific elements of his trip. But he cannot forget the overwhelming impression of the memories on his mind, the fact that the journey has really never been more than “marking out a distance, / Or dealing with the past, however ineffectually, / Or ways of searching for some new enclosure in this space / Between the oceans.” And yet, this way of approaching the journey—representing it through language to “mark” not only distance but also the extent of desolation, and to seek a new place as yet unstained—is, perhaps, the only way in which one can also approach North America. The “enclosure” that the speaker seeks may not, finally, exist, for he brings with him, like the blurring map, the unerasable “stains” of his memory; but the act of articulating these memories may leave room for some alternative—if only suggested in its very absence from the scene he represents.

 

©Heather Zadra 2001

Heather Zadra: On "Petroglyphs of Serena"

I felt quite compelled to write about this poem because I grew up connected (in a paradoxically disconnected sort of way) to the images Louis presents so starkly and realistically. In fact, through much of his work I could match his bleak, yet intensely powerful, depictions with scenes I've witnessed since I was a child in White River, South Dakota (just north of the Rosebud Indian Reservation and a couple of hours east of Pine Ridge), where my grandmother and father were raised and where I spent every summer growing up. "Yellowbird's Store" becomes the local Wig-Wam, where milk costs $3.50 a gallon and *is* "powdered with Great Plains dust"; I can see the "broken-down '72 Olds" (or maybe it's a Plymouth) rusting in a front yard; and, as in "Dust World," everybody knows that, even if young people do escape this town (and many, many don't), they still "have...two strikes/ against them even if they did graduate." A close friend of my father's, a white man who's now a dentist in Chicago, can rattle off the names of the dead, names that composed most of his graduating class--high school classmates who, over the years or early on, were killed in tragic, split-second accidents, who died of alcoholism, or who are barely hanging on and have forsaken the title of "living." He is white, like my father, and that "helped"--for whatever that's worth. They didn't have the history or the precedents to deal with that their Native American friends did, even as they recognized their own race's blame in shaping that history. But sometimes they talk about it and sound amazed that even they got out, and that once they did, they actually succeeded in what they tried to do "out there." We still visit, but Dad pretty much stays around the house, which lies just outside of town a mile or so.

It's eerie, almost, seeing this world through Louis from the inside, in a way that, even as my grandmother and her mother always welcomed the many poor Lakota Indians who appeared shyly at their home (as they ate together, my relatives always promised to pick them up in a beaten-up old van on Sunday morning for church), I never had access to in my own experience. That I am white, despite the deeply-held sympathies that I learned and felt growing up, and that I can honestly feel as I write this post, rightfully excludes me from any notion or understanding of what this dispossessed, displaced people has undergone, or continues to undergo. A naive realization, and one that I've implicity understood for some time now, but one, I think, that describes exactly what Louis intends for his white readers.

"Petroglyphs of Serena" gives us "snapshots," so to speak, of a dying world, a world in which even the Native American speaker cannot find a way out. Its language is distinctly personal and individualized, at the same time that the poem's description of one small reservation town and its inhabitants suggests hundreds of other, similar towns and people stretched across the region. And yet it is not for the white people that Louis presents this picture, or if it is, he does so in a way that includes them only as figures complicit in the Native American destruction that is simultaneously the Indians' own "self-destruction." As the biographical sketch indicates, even as Louis dreams of "that simple urge to scalp a white man," he also refuses to gloss over his own, and his people's, part in damning themselves: "Our children have no respect / because their parents cannot connect / the values of the ancient chiefs / to the deadly grief that welfare brings." Still, it is ultimately the white race that has brought Native Americans into the conditions that urge on a people's self-ruin. The poem is thus inevitably dependent on whites' involvement in its construction, at the same time that it stands as a sort of infirm monument to a once self-reliant people.

The yearning for a return to a simple, communal past that can no longer be reclaimed except in memory, through those who remember for the people as "the grandmother[s] of us all", echoes throughout the poem. The speaker understands the impossibility of going back to "the old days" and can find no viable way to redeem the future, to save generations that must otherwise be subjected to the same conditions that he, and numerous others before him, have been. Thus, he can only question, rather than provide answers to, those who, likewise, cannot respond to such unanswerable concerns:

 

The question is, can the children be saved?

And if so, then why? Will they ever be whole

or do we just add them to the dark days

of casualties from Sand Creek

to Ira Hayes?

 

The speaker's only "solutions," or perhaps we might call them escapes, are to move away from reality by imagining redemption through revenge ("the sweet, sweet squeak / of blade hitting headbone. / The snapdance of sinew / yanked awry"), or through escapist sexual pleasure which, even as it invests him with the sense that he is "safe and guilt-free," is only fleeting and ultimately defeating: "I love to graze on the sparse, black / cornsilk in the valleys of the Sioux / and it will be my downfall." The speaker's descriptions of his sexual impulses fill the beginning of the poem, and are cut off abruptly by Serena's death; they are then replaced by vengeful imaginings revolving around white men, white traders, and their abuses of Native Americans; finally, by the end of the poem, sexual acts once again become the focus, this time, perhaps, with Serena's sister. All of these shifts unsuccessfully attempt to elide the enormity of what has happened to a culture, an entire tradition, and turn into a twisted cycle that mimics the seasonal changes recurrent throughout the poem. Much of the vitality of Native American traditions have revolved around the importance of continuous change, often epitomized in nature, and here Louis puts such forms to a darker purpose. The freezing Indians in their poorly insulated homes, for instance, perform a deeply ironic ritual, once ceremonial but here desperate, as they "shiver-danced around woodstoves / and howled the most wondrous songs / of brilliant poverty."

There's so much more to do with this poem, and I've only touched the surface (e.g., what *about* Serena's death?), but it might suffice to close in noting that the poem's speaker, though still angry, is exhausted, tired, perhaps a bit like Hughes in his later poetry. It is 1997, and still he paints the same pictures he's been trying to sell for thirty years.

Heather Zadra: On "Elizabeth Umpstead"

Sandburg’s "Elizabeth Umpstead" presents the individualized voice of a black female prostitute, giving the tragic speaker limited agency in a ruthlessly capitalist society. Such agency, however, is not attained without sacrifice, and does not ultimately compensate for the prostitute’s circumscription within the market economy. That she has "learned what [men] wanted and traded on it" seems to anticipate Langston Hughes’ speaker’s hope for the "dark Mercedes" of Hughes' later poem. Gold, however, does not "fall at the feet" of Elizabeth Umpstead’s "beauty" (line 5), but she commands it, demands it, taking some control over her own commodification by negotiating the price of sexual exchange. Even as she withholds or allows access to her body, however, the fact that Elizabeth Umpstead cannot resist being commodified also contributes to the poem’s sense of despair and cynicism. The poem thus exposes and critiques the harshness of a capitalist system that seems utterly bereft of human compassion.

Sandburg’s speaker is trapped in a world centering around female submission and compliance; the central ambivalence of the poem revolves around her struggle to define herself inevitably within, yet simultaneously against, this world. The tragedy of the speaking voice lies not only in the impossibility of escape from the market system of human property and trade, but also in the heavy price of any empowerment within this system. By the time of her death, Elizabeth Umpstead has completely separated herself from humanity, isolated herself emotionally from those "two-legged moving figures" whom to trust would mean to endanger the secure, if not unproblematic, place she has forged for herself "on top of the earth." Her material dependence upon her own body and those of others necessitates that she compensate with a sort of "internal independence" to avoid total victimization or objectification. As a result, even as she engages with other humans, with men, in physical ways, she consciously appropriates some autonomy by severing herself psychologically from all other "figures" she encounters.

Thus, what authority Elizabeth Umpstead can claim lies largely in her psychological separation from the men who would "own" her body and, similarly, from the poem’s readers who, like the men, can never fully "possess" her as a definable, identifiable voice. Because her body can be temporarily "bought" in the exchange system, her physical self, and her beauty, are undeniably objectified in the gaze of the men who desire her. By wrenching "all I could [get] for it" from the "white men and black men" she attracts, however, she does "manage" herself as object, if only to a limited degree. In this sense, then, she is also a subject who controls how and by whom her body is used, just as she chooses which details of her life readers will and will not be privy to. Much like McKay’s Harlem Dancer constructs an image that may or may not reflect her true "self" on the stage—the male speaker’s assurance that "her self was not in that strange place" is well-intentioned but speaks from a place outside of that "self," resulting in the potential inaccuracy of his reading of her—Elizabeth Umpstead’s words simultaneously reveal and conceal a self that we can never quite grasp, that remains elusive despite our attempts to contain or harness her voice.

One way in which Elizabeth Umpstead’s agency emerges in the specific context of her commodification is through her appropriation of the language of trade as she "scheme[s]" and "haggle[s]" with the men who desire her. While men yearn to "take [her beauty] and crush it and taste it," to make the object their own, her familiarity with the words used by men in their economy, in conjunction with her emotional detachment from them, gives her some claim in a system that has traditionally rendered female prostitutes voiceless and nameless. Though men may know the beauty of her body through sexual encounter, they only "taste" her briefly, fleetingly; never do they actually possess, "take" or "crush" the essence of that beauty itself. Of course, we cannot forget that Elizabeth Umpstead is always, to some extent, used by and contained within capitalist ideology; the poem’s wrenching account of her sufferings underscores this fact. At the same time, her ability to mitigate victimization under such oppressive circumstances, through a pragmatic transformation of her sexuality into a viable resource, cannot be denied. She allows men access to her beauty only under her conditions, and then never wholly, never with true emotion or feeling behind it.

The falling away of innocence is necessary for the woman who "was the most beautiful nigger girl in northern Indiana"; she cannot afford to be used "as a brass cuspidor or a new horse and buggy or a swivel chair," as she is when a lawyer impregnates her and pays her to bear his child. By surrendering her physical self to one man by accepting "$600 . . . for the keep of the child of my womb and his loins," she has also forsaken the psychological distance necessary to some sense of self-preservation within the market economy. Even as the lawyer regards Elizabeth Umpstead as a vehicle for production, valuable for its "cargo" but as devoid of emotional worth as a "brass cuspidor," she has allowed herself to become too trusting, too emotionally involved to reject his offer of ownership, to cast aside the "spot cash" that effectively marks her as the pawn of a system that assumes male consumption of female bodies. Although her position as prostitute certainly necessitates that she continue to exist as consumed body even after this incident, her resolve to separate her internal self from the physical act of bodily consumption keeps her from playing the pawn, from moving mechanically forward from one moment of possession to the next. For the speaker, then, naivete is dangerous, for it subjects her to the harsh reality of the exchange economy without any means of resistance or retaliation. As long as she remains ignorant of a world in which men will possess and control attractive women, her beauty is her greatest liability. Used with shrewd understanding—and in the context of a conscious decision not to be fully incorporated into male desire and ownership—it is a means of ameliorating the already deadening effects of objectification, and of taking some hand in the otherwise bleak reality of her life.

The description of the incident that moves Elizabeth Umpstead from vulnerability to self-protective cunning reveals the cost of her knowledge and says something about the evolution of her self-detachment from the capitalist world. Though she "learn[s] early," her innocence almost destroys her, effects her incorporation into the market system as purely passive commodity. Upon submitting to her lover’s desire for her to keep the child, she commits herself to "service" to the buyer until the fulfillment of her obligation to him. And unlike later years in which she can at least control the conditions of the trade, if not the fact of bodily exchange itself, she is frozen by the nature of the contract, the result of her naïve agreement to it. Thus, her initial weakness causes a painful and almost catastrophic "rebirth" into experience, allowing her to be seduced by the same market system in which she will later attain some form of agency.

The lawyer's confession of his sins in the church, his public revealing of the speaker as a pitiable whore who takes money to have babies, unveils the consequences of Elizabeth Umpstead’s choice:

And then he went to a revival, sang "Jesus Knows All about Our Troubles," moaned he was a sinner and wanted Jesus to wash his sins away. He joined the church and stood up one night before hundreds of people and blabbed to them how he used me, had a child by me, and paid me $600 cash.

For the spiritual "cleansing" of male guilt, the female body becomes simultaneously the vehicle of the lawyer’s "redemption" and an object of shameful spectacle and revulsion. He presents Elizabeth Umpstead as a mere type, a powerless, defenseless victim whose sacrifice as scapegoat for his sins temporarily severs all claims to agency, voice, and individualism. Most important, perhaps, the incident exposes her failure to establish self-reliance as a prostitute. His language encompasses not only her physical self, but also her psychological motivations, trivializing her mistake for the sake of his own advancement. Even as Elizabeth Umpstead prepares to reclaim some internal self in the final lines of the poem, Sandburg comments upon a hypocrisy that extends beyond all monetary façades; capitalist corruption spills into spiritual matters, as well, rendering repentance an illusion that thrives off of vulnerable women’s victimization.

As Elizabeth Umpstead "wait[s] till one night [she] saw him in the public square," and then thrashes the lawyer’s face with a "leather horsewhip," she acts out a partial transformation from owned object to liberated subject. At the same time, her triumph is tempered in that she is still "owned" by the body economy that continues to ensnare her. That she speaks from the dead—as a corpse—symbolizes her ultimate objectification as body within that economy, even as she declares herself apart from the "moving figures" that occupy this realm. Still, although we may concede the impossibility of her escape from the market system, the closing event of the poem lends some element of tragic accomplishment to her completed life.

Elizabeth Umpstead’s violent humiliation of her lover in a public space reciprocates the offense done to her, mimics the cruel shearing away of self-respect that she must now recover. In order to regain some autonomy and authority over her own body—and to close herself off from such emotional attachments in the future—she must expel the violence carried out on her by literally reenacting it onto her perpetrator: "I slashed his face . . . calling all the wild crazy names that came to my tongue to damn him and damn him and damn him, for a sneak in the face of God and man." Though readers may find it difficult to validate the speaker’s choice to repay emotional harm with physical violence, Elizabeth Umpstead’s undiluted emotional reaction, however cruel, allows her to disavow all psychological connections to the "outer" world of commerce. She thus claims the only means of agency available to her, permanently distancing herself from emotional relations that could again rob her from choice and some measure of independence.

Ó Heather Zadra, 2001

Heather Zadra: On "Come to the Waldorf-Astoria"

If "The Bitter River," written at a time of disillusionment for Hughes in the early '40s, suggests no lasting vision of mass revolution, "Come to the Waldorf-Astoria" demonstrates a point in Hughes' career when such possibilities seemed not only feasible, but likely. I'd like to add to Shulman's observations about the poem's last "Christmas Card" section which, as he points out, takes on similar subject matter and tone as the later "Goodbye Christ"--the section that fully acknowledges his hope for an emerging revolutionary "salvation" which, Shulman also notes, presents communism as a new "religion" in itself. Let me start by talking about how Hughes tries to draw a revolutionary response from the oppressed subjects he writes about.

The entire piece, of course, works as a stinging social commentary on the "fruits" of capitalism--the satiric descriptions of the "swell board," the "Apartments in the Towers," the "undercover driveways," all of which are paid for by "the men and women who get rich off of [the poor's] labor." Hughes intends every bit of the poem's inflammatory tone. His representation of an utterly hypocritical yet heretofore unaccountable "upper crust" targets as its audience not only the rich and privileged within the capitalist system, but also those whose indignation is most warranted: the potentially powerful, dynamic "mob," those hit hardest by the Depression or other circumstances who have the potential to effect real change. Though Hughes divides this "advertisement to action" into distinct sections, addressing the "Hungry Ones," "Roomers," "Evicted Families," and "Negroes" alike, the penultimate heading, "Everybody," unites them in a common cause. The implicit threat--the possibility for strength in numbers--that exists in organizing those who should be able to "draw" their *own* "dividends," rather than reliquish them to the ones "who clip coupons with clean white fingers," can be seen in the class juxtapositions satirically offered throughout the poem.

The unseen observer-speaker presents a stark realism in conjunction with the absurdity of "Tak[ing] a room at the new Waldorf," "choos[ing] the Waldorf as a background for your rags," and inviting black Harlem to "Drop in at the Waldorf this afternoon for tea." Certainly the most invasive image for the privileged readers against whom the poem is directed would be that of "Mary, Mother of God . . . turned whore because her belly was too hungry to stand it any more" birthing her child in a "nice clean bed" at the Waldorf (though, as Shulman notes, critics of the later "Goodbye Christ" overlooked this seemingly volatile image). What does Hughes intend with these improbable juxtapositions? The image of an oppressed poor enjoying the luxuries of the rich they support, perhaps even spoiling or remaking those goods, "de-sophisticating" them (as the Harlem mob "shak[ing] hips" at the Waldorf would change the tenor of the dance, and the soiled bedclothes of the new Conception would literally and spiritually dim all surrounding grandeur), works as an intentionally threatening vision of unified change, one which foresees a *new* "background for society." Class lines are simultaneously blurred and reinforced through this technique; the reality of a capitalist nation sharpens those lines (imagine what would happen if black Harlem really *did* come to the Waldorf to dance), while the potential for a Communist future erases them, bringing the destitute within reach of what has long been their due.

The conversational, yet bitingly sarcastic, tone of the speaker's voice--juxtaposed with black vernacular under the section entitled "Negroes"--comes to its peak in "Christmas Card," the final stanza of the poem. Here the speaker of "Goodbye Christ" is, in some sense, born, rejecting the "old" Christ and offering himself as the new secular Messiah ("Make way for a new guy with no religion at all-- / A real guy named / Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME--"). The "new born babe" wrapped "in the red flag of Revolution" will start anew for a better cause, minus the capitalist "baggage" associated with the former Savior: "nobody's gonna sell ME / To a king, or a general, / Or a millionaire." This child, too, must be born in "the best manger we've got" right now, the finely wrought arches of capitalism--but arches, the speaker hopes, that the child will one day perhaps demolish or appropriate for different uses.

The speakers sees a new day dawning, and the "Christmas Card" attempts to send a powerful message of potential redemption and rebirth to those who would receive it--the decision must be to "follow him" or, more broadly, to follow the revolutionary impulse.

Copyright ©  2001 by Heather Zadra

Heather Zadra: On "Three Songs about Lynching"

"Three Songs About Lynching" uses the conventions of song, including repeated phrases and lines that work as recurring "bridges," to enact and reenforce a terrifying depiction of lynching, one that becomes representative of each victim, each instance of death, no matter the varying circumstances of events. Just as traditional songs move from verse to verse, so too does "Three Songs" move from one "stage" of the lynching process to another. None of the songs retain the full effect of their significance without the others; thus, each song exists not independently, but as a part or verse of a "Grand Chorus" that intricately describes, laments, and rails against the ongoing travesty represented in the single lynching depicted in the songs.

If we decide to read the songs as units whose individual "tales" make up a coherent "narrative," one that reveals an even more overwhelming image of hate than each song would elicit read alone or separately, it is significant to note that the stages of the lynching, the order of the verses as we would expect to hear them sung or performed, seem out of place. If Hughes composed the songs to be published together, as evidence indicates he did for *Opportunity,* why not follow the logical path from the innocent man's attempt to escape, to his implicit capture and actual hanging, to his lone "silhouette" disturbing the genteel lady in her perfect world? It seems to me that, despite the horrifying nature of the songs' subject matter, Hughes chooses to follow a chronology of the black race's future potential for freedom and empowerment, rather than of actual events. While the hope that exists in the songs may appear insignificant, even trivial, in contrast to the sheer force of the evil that drives lynchings, Hughes finally forges life from death, just as the last stanza's gloss indicates: "life not dead at all."

In describing "Silhouette" in a word, we might adequately identify it by the term "hypocrisy." The song focuses on the "Southern gentle lady" who, even if she has not directly effected the hanging of the black man on "a roadside tree," is representative of white women who, by claiming rape or force by their actual lovers (or by making blatantly false accusations of rape), preserve their own reputation and condemn innocent men to die (thus, "silhouette" is appropriate not only for the shape of the lynched man's body against the landscape, but also for the shell or shadow of virtue or goodness that the Southern woman represents, and the sham illusion of justice that lynching pretends to carry out). Here lies a central reason for black lynchings in the early decades of the century; the "white womanhood" so jealously defended leaves little room for the black man's defense of himself. The woman's ability to "swoon" upon, perhaps, such a dreadful sight masks her own cruelty in causing the event, her hidden staunchness in affirming a crime that was never committed. Hope seems almost entirely absent in this song; "the dark of the [white] moon," significantly repeated, suggests both the evil impulses and motivations of the white woman, and the consentual sexual union of white and black that will later be denied. The speaker's command to "Be good!" may be read as white men's insistence that she acquiesce to the rape story, perpetuate the accusation to maintain her "innocence"--which does not excuse her but merely seals her part as murderer.

Another way to interpret the intriguing "Be good!", however, may relate to some potential for future change; if the speaker continues as the sarcastic, bitter voice heard thus far in the song, he may be imploring her to take the first step toward releasing black men from the injustice of lynching, for it is white women's voices that have the power to free them from their fates. At the same time, the power of the black poet in creating the words and tenor of the "satirically sentimental" song is indicated as "the world...see[s] / How Dixie protects / Its white womanhood." Through song, the poet attempts to make "the world see" another side of the same story, to reveal that Dixie's "protection" is nothing more than murder. In this sense, then, the poet becomes agencied in that he brings to light a new vision of truth, one that subverts the very words of racist ideology through satire and irony, and reveals a justified hatred of the causes that kill innocent men. 

Again, in "Flight" we can literally feel the utter despair of the hunted man; that the guiding speaker urges him to "Hurry, black boy, hurry!", cutting him off from any explanation of his innocence, suggests the impossibility of words in such a desperate situation. Words of truth don't matter here, for the whites construct their own truth, and escape from its consequences is the only real hope the fugitive has. Indeed, the hopelessness of the scenario feels almost oppressive as one reads the song, even as the speaker pushes the "sweating runner" on; to "Plant your toes in the cool swamp mud," and then to "Step and leave no track" seems an almost superhuman feat, for it is mud, not dirt, that leaves the most visible marks of travel. The hounds follow close behind; and even if the man escapes (which, given our united narrative hypothosis, cannot be), he will not be redeemed by any law governed by white men, and must wander in secret, cut off from his family and friends. 

Where, then, to find a vision of freedom, agency? Perhaps we can see the poet's gesture toward the future in his very description of despair, and in the following lines of the next song. Here I'm thinking of Hughes' "The Bitter River," when he mentions the quenching of his dream: "The book studied--but useless, / Tool handled--but unused, / Knowledge acquired but thrown away, / Ambition battered and bruised." Notice that it is the fleeing "black boy"'s physical motions that are marked out in the song's lines--the necessity to run for his life, true, but also the potential one day to show physical, and underlying mental, strength in the face of opposition. The terms used in the chase, the "planting" of the feet in preparing to take off, the precise "stepping" that must be calculated to achieve maximum speed, suggest not only the "could have beens," as in "The Bitter River," but also what might be in the future. 

Perhaps "Lynching Song" is the most difficult to read for its brutal, gleeful cries to "Pull at the rope! O! Pull it high!", but it is in this song that the sympathetic voice of the second song, and the bitter voice of the first, come together to create an alternative, subversive strain to the calls of the lynchers. That the song is to be accompanied by trumpets indicates some fanfare or victory; but the sound of their "empty wonder" reveals the utter futility of the whites' triumph over the dead man. The strong, virile body of the second song is not overcome or defeated by death, for it symbolizes a race that decries and denounces the horrors done to it thus far, and that refuses further abuse: "NOT I." The body speaks the message of its people through its very silence and stillness. Though the words of the poet interpret the message's meaning for readers, the image of the body itself asserts blacks' refusal to submit to another kind of death that whites have committed themselves to through hatred: an emotional death, a deadening of the senses and of all human compassion that does not end with life, but that passes on to--and poisons--future generations. The speaker's voice interrupts the lynching song by mimicing it, turning the cries of its perpetrators onto themselves: "Pull it, boys, / With a bloody cry / As the nigger spins / And the white folks die." Thus, with each pull of the rope, the whites effectively tighten the metaphorical noose around their own necks. Hearing something awry, they must question the voice that has spoken out of turn, out of phrase; "The white folks die? / What do you mean-- / The white folks die?". This moment reveals not only the whites' anxiety over the inversion, but also the utter unawareness that the lynchers have regarding their self-destruction. The final words again, "NOT I," end the songs with the future dream-vision; though justifiably angry, even raging against the injustices of whites, blacks will not submit to the same emotional death that whites have, nor will they allow themselves to become objectified, vilified by whites' hatred.

Copyright © 2001 by Heather Zadra

Heather Zadra: On "Imagine the Angels of Bread"

Martin Espada's "Imagine the Angels of Bread" is a fascinating combination of the vengeful and the visionary, of anger and compassion, and of reality and dream. The speaker imagines a worldwide release from oppression, depicting an escape, among other injustices, from inhumane work conditions, tenant evictions, and politically motivated murders. The poem proceeds by way of a series of near-apocalyptic revolutionary reversals, by inverting long-standing injustices as Espada, on the one hand, imagines those in power themselves suffering for the first time--"squatters evict landlords"--or, conversely, dreams of liberating the poor and the victims of discrimination.

"Imagine the Angels of Bread" is divided roughly into three phases that transition with each stanza break, and that correspond to the speaker's internal motivations, culminating in the appearance of the Angels of Bread. The first expresses rage and some level of retribution; the second, a freeing of the oppressed and the existence of hope, and the third, a call to action in accomplishing the "imagined" of the poem's title. The final lines recognize the reality of the present time, even as they look toward a future in which change must define what "this year" will bring.

In an interview with Espada, Steven Ratiner points to the poet's ability to challenge "the official history" in his work, to define new heroes in that history and, in Espada's words, to let anger "be a recurrent feeling in the poems as long as you vary the tone." Certainly all of these components make up, to some degree, "Imagine the Angels of Bread." The first stanza is perhaps the most explicitly angry in its redistributed punishment of those who have long inflicted the same wounds on their victims:

This is the year that squatters evict landlords, gazing like admirals from the rail of the roofdeck or levitating hands in praise of steam in the shower; this is the year that shawled refugees deport judges who stare at the floor and their swollen feet as files are stamped with their destination[.]

The voice of the poem is assisted in its project even by the repressive objects it names: "police revolvers, / stove-hot, blister the fingers / of raging cops, and nightsticks splinter / in their palms." Explicit violence is contained in that the instruments typically used to cause death and wounding do not simply turn on their owners, but become impotent in their hands. Similarly, the last image of the stanza suggests not a retributive justice, but an anger put to positive means, rather than resorting to the same horror enacted on innocent bodies, as "darkskinned men / lynched a century ago / return to sip coffee quietly / with the apologizing descendents / of their executioners." Here, the very act of apology, while never sufficient to atone for the deaths of those wrongly accused, does provide for some link to a future that, while perhaps not yet achievable in the here and now (the significance of "this is the year," unbounded by a specific time, enables the future and allows for indulgences in the spiritually miraculous and fantastic throughout the poem), envisions unity and some peace.

The second stanza leaves behind direct oppressors, as anger becomes more concretely reshaped into hope. That the body (or many bodies) are fragmented in this stanza--into hands, eyes, an ear, heads--suggests their current status as mere instruments of work, dissociated from personhood or individuality. At the same time, these are vehicles for interpreting sensations, for comprehending and knowing the beauty of a released nature, "the earth that sprouts the vine," "the rooster-loud hillside," "the coffee plantation country" that, freed from death, might flourish unworked, unsoiled. Both the natural and the manmade are invested with the potential for redemption, even if, at this time, they can be "imagine"d only in negatives, in what actually happens in the here and now.

The third stanza, then, urges on the vision described in the poem thus far; the persistent "if"s stack upon one another, increasing the urgency and potency of language and, necessarily, of action. For the answer to each of these "if"s is, of course, "yes, yes, YES!", and one can almost imagine the speaker on a platform, reminding his listeners of past triumphs over horrific slaughter, abuse, and ownership, while ehorting them to realize the potential that THIS is the year, the time, when action will result in full success. The final lines of the poem encompass both the truths with which we are currently faced ("humiliated mouth[s], teeth like desecrated headstones"), and the redemption possible through a secular resurrection, a rising up not of Christ, but of the people. That the body remains fragmented, but that it is now a "mouth" that is imaged signifies the place where change begins (initiated by the mouth, the words of the speaker-poet, agent of change); these mouths will not fill with bread, but with "angels" themselves. Thus, somewhat as Tim Dean notes in his MAPS essay on Mark Doty's "Homo Will Not Inherit," the marginalized and their cause becomes santified, holy. "This is the year" that history will be written for the future, and death will be overcome by the transcendent.

 

Copyright © 2001 by Heather Zadra

Heather Zadra: On "I Forgot for a Moment"

One of the striking features of Millay's "I Forgot For a Moment" is its seemingly uncompromised willingness to idealize, perhaps even gloss over, the reality of the highly charged situation at hand: the defeat of France by and retreat of Britain from German forces in June 1940, Mussolini's declaration of war on both nations, also in June, and Britain's refusal to accept or negotiate Hitler's demands, resulting in the initiation of full-scale naval warfare between England and Germany (Overy). Millay's poem seems ready to forget the political volatility of the time in favor of a fantasy of peace and harmony, of "striped fields of tulips" and "straight roads / Lined with slender poplars," even as that fantasy is so utterly unrealizable as to seem only "as if I slept and dreamt." Compared to her antiromantic sonnets, this piece appears to do just the opposite of the former's intention: rather than debunk an idealized myth of love or war, "I Forgot For a Moment" allows the speaker to indulge in a pretty dream-world in which political action can be surrendered in favor of watching the nice peasants plow the verdant land.

Of course, I'm setting this analysis up to refute my own intentionally overstated claims thus far, for I think that the poem, while genuinely striking *for* its vision of a world devoid of corruption, also performs a very specific political task in the images that underlie the words themselves. These representations are significant not for their articulation but for their very absence in the piece. In Gale's depiction of Millay's life, he describes her as a "once-pacifist" poet who became enamoured with the cause of the Allies and began "to call for preparedness and then...dash off pro-British and pro-French propaganda verse." Though Gale somewhat trivializes Millay's investment in her "war work," he does point to the specifically political nature of these poems, and certainly we can see the strength of this commitment in Millay's justifiably accusatory "Say that We Saw Spain Die" of 1938.

From a purely aesthetic perspective, "I Forgot For a Moment" is quite lovely to read; we can almost see the images rise before us, Millay's emphasis on color and order, "straight[ness]" and "bright[ness]," having the effect of a precisely planned, carefully constructed painting. The verses are sing-songey, even nursery rhyme-like, and give the poem a sense of innocence appropriate to the speaker's reaction to her surroundings, and to "a world...inept / At twisted words and crooked deeds." The speaker's emphasis on the blending of human creations and natural elements further lends to the sense of balance evident throughout the poem. "The peasants on the skyline ploughing," like the "straight canals" that provide water for the "fields of tulips," demonstrate the symbiotic relationship between nature and those who care for it.  And yet, in looking closer, in searching beyond the artistic, even quality of the poem, we can see shadows of a more serious call to action, hints of the bloodshed that will not *allow* Millay's readers to "forg[e]t" the countries that so desperately need American popular and military support in this historical moment. The terms that the speaker uses to describe her slip into reverie, for instance, never enable her to submit to complete oblivion; even as she may have "forgot[ten]" France and England's present states of horror, it is only "for a moment," a brief instant in time. After this she, like the readers to whom she speaks in the poem, must rise and awake, work toward some version of the dream in the context of a relatively bleak reality. Similarly, the very invocation of words such as "tank"--even as the word is negated in the phrase "not a tank"--forces readers out of the dream-moment and into the realization that, somewhere, right now, tanks *are* "crushing the tulips" so carefully planted in a village, a plot, somebody's garden. 

Millay uses other, less specific terms to suggest the atrocities of war, even as she places them in the context of untainted beauty and peace. The speaker's concern to discern individual shades of red in the tulips (previously she describes only "yellow" and "white"), "Scarlet strip[s] and mauve strip[s]," invokes shades of blood, soaking through, perhaps, onto "strips" of gauze, and the "level lowlands" that bloom for "Mile after mile" simultaneously suggest the aforementioned tank's "levelling" of acres upon acres of land. The image of "Broad ships" allows us only to see the sails, for the hulls--the places where the weaponry and machinery of war are kept--are "by tulip-beds concealed." The poem's pointed covering-up of the articles of war necessarily reveals them to readers, makes them more significant than the images that actually concretely appear. Millay's intention becomes clear in her use of such a linguistic approach; absences become conspicuous and noticable, and emerge as reasons for the impossibility of forgetting--much less ignoring--which is the right side to take in the war. Millay crafted a speaker who mimics and then undercuts the widespread isolationism of American readers.

The most explicit indicator of the speaker's position, of course, is in her description of the "wrong side's" false oaths as it breaks into the dream-world and is silenced: 

...the harsh foreign voice  hysterically vowing,  Once more, to keep its word, at length was disbelieved, and hushed.

In this closing image, the imagined world allows concrete reality to enter its space more tangibly than the poem has done thus far. The power of the poem lies in its ability to not only suggest the grief and horror enacted in the days preceding July 1940, but also to provide a more substantial vision of the desired end to the conflict. In other words, even as the speaker envisions the defeat of fascism and Nazism in her mind, she burdens her readers with their own "heavy care," their responsibility to make such an articulation a reality.

copyright © 2001 by Heather Zadra